Initially the brainchild of a tech tycoon introduced as “founder of a magazine for people who want to live well and do good”, EarthToParis was steeped in the familiar mindset of what Bill Wasik calls “digital imperialism”. Here, alongside a conference which brought 150 heads of state and 185 nations together to settle arguments over $100 billion in annual climate finance, over the difference between 1.5° and 2° aspirations (and thus over the lives of some 50 million people), the number with which EarthToParis was concerned were different. “There have been over a billion impressions” made via #EarthToParis, the emcees crowed.
In between the selfie wall and the free catered lunch, in the quite-literally gilded halls of a commandeered public museum, this was action. To convene in a well-appointed room, to assemble around themselves the actors, politicians, scientists, and athletes whose names have become synonymous with climate change, this was action. The assertion that this vapid self-congratulation satisfied any sort of ethical responsibility, or much less deserved special recognition, was off-putting.
"We are the first generation,” they told the audience, “to take this seriously." In the face of many communities who have been fighting this fight for generations, they're still right, because this is what taking something seriously looks like to a moneyed elite which is concerned primarily with itself and its reputation. They've wrapped it in the rhetoric of action and the body language of sleepwalking. They've summoned the moral authorities - famous scientists, civic leaders, corporate giants from all corners - to deliver a message of satisfaction: You are the good ones. By acknowledging the issue and its relevance, you have done enough.
The history of climate change is in many ways a history of the failure of the industrial and political elite. Each surge of Mauna Loa’s CO2 measurements, as we are now learning for certain through the investigative work of the LA Times and other media outlets, traces a back-room deal, an intimidated scientist, or a corporate collusion. The great lesson of global warming is that free markets and free entrepreneurs do not hold themselves to high ethical standards. It is because of this, as well as because of the tremendous new frontiers of necessity which climate change has opened, that we must make this a deeply educational moment for society’s wealthiest members.
I don’t intend to belittle the democratic power of social media, which truly can elevate marginalized voices and provide a platform for issues which centralized institutions aren’t interested in confronting. And I certainly don’t mean to denigrate the content which EarthToParis provided. A string of brilliant speakers, from Jerry Brown to Irina Bokova, had truly important and substantive things to say. The convening power of this event was tremendous, but that power was used to reinforce rather than to critique, to placate rather than rile up.
What we need to tell our elites is how they are failing. Instead, the elite marshal their resources to hear how they already know enough—to hear how knowing is enough. Quite simply, this is a fatal perversion of the ethical mandates of power.